MARY "SANAPIA" POAFPYBITTY

Sanapia, born Mary Poafpybitty (ca. 20 May 1895-23 January 1984) was a Comanche medicine woman and spiritual healer. She is believed to be the last of eagle doctors, a Comanche title referring to a person with eagle medicine for healing the sick. She was influenced by traditional Comanche medicine, incorporating elements of Christianity and Peyotism. Her spiritual healing was documented by David E. Jones after 1967, mainly in the early 1970s.

Sanapia was born to David Poafpybitty and Chappy Poafpybitty, both Comanche, living near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Although it has been written that she was born on May 20, 1895, she was uncertain of her actual birthdate so this date was adopted later on. She was sixth of eleven children but the first girl to be born in her family. While she was young, her family struggled to make ends meet and lived in poverty, relying on rations from nearby Fort Sill. She was raised by her maternal grandmother.

Sanapia did not begin a career as a medicine woman until her mid-teens. From a very young age, she received training from her mother and her maternal uncle, an Arapaho chief, both of which were eagle doctors. Although her father, David, was a Christian and indifferent to Comanche spiritual practices, he did not interfere with the religious training of his daughter. She attended Cache Creek Mission School in southern Oklahoma from the age of 7 until 14 and during the summer holidays would develop a knowledge of herbal medicines.

Between the ages of 14 and 17 she received full-time training from her mother, uncle, and paternal grandfather to attain the knowledge, ethics, skills and the supernatural powers (paha) to become a medicine woman. The latter, attaining supernatural powers, would be achieved by transferring power through the medium of the hands and mouth, using various methods such as hot coals into her hands, two eagle feathers inserted into her mouth and the egg of an eagle into her stomach. The visionary aspects of the training were achieved through prolonged periods of solitary meditation and spiritual nurturing and intensive reiterating by her mother that evil spirits such as ghosts and demons would harm her which terrified her. Her uncle named her “Sanapia”, which means “Memory Woman”.

Forbidden by tradition to practice until after menopause, Sanapia accepted an arranged marriage immediately after completing her medical training, but the couple soon separated and she remarried someone of her own choice. This second marriage was a happy one; it produced two children and ended only with her husband’s death in the 1930s. The loss of her husband led to a period of depression that she described as “roughing it out,” reacting to her grief with violent bursts of anger, compulsive gambling, excessive drinking, and sexual promiscuity.

Still unwilling to accept the role of eagle doctor, one day, Sanapia healed the sick child of her sister. This event was a spiritual reawakening, and she took it as a sign to denounce her bad ways and became a serious medicine woman. Around this time she married for a third time. She was widowed once again in her old age, but continued an active medical practice.

By the 1960s Sanapia was the last surviving Comanche eagle doctor and had become something of an anachronism, aware that she represented an ancient and disappearing institution. Nevertheless, though she was unable to pass her skills on to a successor and the status of Comanche eagle doctor vanished after her death. She was posthumously to become a culture hero beyond the Native American community as a woman who carried her people’s traditions into the twentieth century.

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